It started in 1965 when a team of scientists developed a drink to help replenish electrolytes sweat out during practices and games by the University of Florida football team, the Gators. Gatorade was born. Ever since, and fueled by the ’90s “Be Like Mike” ads starring Michael Jordan, Gatorade Thirst Quencher and similar sports drinks have been associated with athletic success. But what does the science say about electrolytes? Should you be replenishing the big three—potassium, sodium, and magnesium—during workouts?
Let’s first address electrolytes as a preventive measure against cramps. And we’ll leave Gatorade and its imitators aside, because many of their formulas are loaded with sugar—a positive if you need fast-acting carbs to fuel the second half of a game, a negative if you’re grinding out cardio to scorch calories and sculpt abs. (FYI: There are a wide variety of low- or no-sugar electrolyte powders, pills, gels, and drinks.)
Precisely what causes cramps when exerting in hot conditions is still open to debate. But even if you’re in the electrolyte deficit camp, there are still the questions of which and how much.
Sports nutritionist Ellen Coleman says, “Some athletes think potassium or magnesium help combat cramping due to excessive sweat loss, however fluid and sodium depletion is more likely the cause. The amount of magnesium lost through sweat is negligible, making magnesium supplementation unnecessary. Magnesium and potassium are stored in the body, so deficits are rare.”
A full spectrum of electrolytes won’t hurt, but it likely won’t help unless you have a dietary shortage. Hydration and stretching are the two best preventive measures for cramping.
New research, presented at this year’s American College of Sports Medicine meeting, tested the effects of electrolytes on cardio workouts, as 34 subjects stationary cycled against progressively greater resistance until reaching exhaustion. Before the test, one group drank a carbohydrate sports drink with electrolytes (chromium, magnesium, potassium, sodium) plus vitamins B-12 and C; the other downed the drink without electrolytes. The groups showed no meaningful differences in performance, heart-rate, or perceived effort.
Those results mirrored an earlier study with a sports drink unfortunately named, Outlast, which seems to have not lasted.
Endurance athletes benefit from electrolyte-loaded, sugary drinks, though it’s unclear how much to credit the minerals and how much the fast-acting carbs. But the electrolytes in such drinks seem to have no significant benefit on shorter, non-endurance workouts. Still, if you’re sweating through 90 minutes of lifting, you will need to replenish the lost electrolytes. Although this is accomplished by a typical, healthy diet, you can always get a head start and do it while you train.
We suggest nature’s Gatorade: coconut water. Available in liquid or powder form, coconut water is low in sugar (and sodium) but high in potassium. Mix the liquid with an equal amount of pure water and add a pinch of salt to every 8 oz. to better reload sodium. It won’t charge up your non-endurance workout, but, in addition to keeping you hydrated, it will help recharge the electrolytes you’re shedding.